Attribution is the Word of the Day

I’ve just returned from a few days in sunny Florida, attending the Direct Marketing Association’s Retail Marking Confernce 2010, and the main takeaway I received from it was that multichannel retailers today are struggling with attribution.

I’ve just returned from a few days in sunny Florida, attending the Direct Marketing Association’s Retail Marking Conference 2010 (RMC), and the main takeaway I have from the event is that today’s multichannel retailers are struggling with attribution.

Attribution is determining which of your marketing vehicles is reponsible for generating consumers’ purchases. And it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For example, a catalog and search can share credit for a sale.

While attribution in the retail world is often viewed strictly as a way to figure out which online marketing programs — e.g., search, affiliate or display, social media — are responsible for the most sales, it also refers to figuring out which sales channel (online or off) are bringing in the most dough.

It’s a tricky thing: Old-line catalogers at the event claimed catalogs drive more online sales than websites or search efforts. E-commerce guys, on the other hand, said websites are where sales occur, so attribution should be credited to them. Email marketers were in the mix, too. They believe email messages received by opt-in consumers are the main driver of in-store and online sales.

Attribution is even more important these days, as corner offices are closely watching marketing teams, who are operating with tighter budgets, to see if spending is being accurately assigned.

The issue of attribution was discussed in several sessions at the RMC. A preconference intensive session led by Al Bessin, a partner at multichannel direct marketing firm LENSER, for example, discussed how customer and transactional information from multiple sources, such as website reports, email service providers and order management systems, can help marketers figure out which channels are working to ensure they’re spending their marketing budgets in the best ways possible.

Attribution was also discussed by Chad White, research director at Smith-Harmon, a Responsys company, in his his closing keynote.

White correctly identified attribution as the missing link, citing an Epsilon study that found 33 percent of permission-based email recipients said they usually visit a brand’s website directly after receiving an email about that brand, instead of clicking on an email link. So, he said, “online conversions attributed to email may be undercounted by as much as 50 percent.”

White also discussed an attribution experiment performed by REI, the outdoor gear merchant. In an effort to test email attribution, REI withheld emails from a certain group of customers while continuing to send them to another, and began monitoring sales. When the test was completed, REI discovered it was overstating the impact of email on online sales since a good portion of customers still bought even without receiving an email.

However, White said, “after determining email’s impact on store sales, which email previously got no credit for, REI discovered that email contribution to total sales was actually twice the level of cookied sales.”

So what’s the answer? Which channel drives the most sales? It’s really hard to tell, and it’s not an exact science. Whether you’re at a large company that has the resources to institute an attribution modeling system or a smaller company that performs witholding tests, it’s still a crapshoot, in my opinion. How can you really know why a customer decides to buy something?

How do you handle attribution? I’d love to hear from you.

Stephanie Miller’s Engagement Matters: Email Storytelling Sells

Combat the fatigue from crowded inboxes by embracing the role of storyteller. Telling a story, rather than just announcing a fact or blasting out an announcement, is a more engaging way to share information. The storytelling approach weaves a relationship through a cadence of touchpoints. Any nurturing or loyalty program is built on the same concept, and many B-to-B marketers are very good at telling stories to move prospects through a buying process.

Gone are the days of the passive email subscriber. Consumers and business professionals tire easily when publishers and marketers broadcast to them. It’s the online equivalent of shouting. Your customers and readers want meaningful conversations — and they know they have other options if you don’t deliver.

Combat the fatigue from crowded inboxes by embracing the role of storyteller. Telling a story, rather than just announcing a fact or blasting out an announcement, is a more engaging way to share information. The storytelling approach weaves a relationship through a cadence of touchpoints. This isn’t complex. Any nurturing or loyalty program is built on the same concept, and many B-to-B marketers are very good at telling stories to move prospects through a buying process.

It’s simply a series of stories about use cases, cool new features and real-life implementation of your editorial, products and services. So invite your subscribers to the proverbial campfire and build their anticipation with a question, “How can I help you today?” Email marketing is great for providing the answer.

Invite subscribers on a story journey
Instead of sending a generic newsletter or “special offers,” invite website visitors to accept a two to five message email series on a particular topic. Make it about how your products, services or content will help them: “Five ways to be beautiful this summer,” “Three strategies for impressing your boss,” “Doctor’s advice on buying contact lenses online,” “Ten things your CEO wants you to know,” “Five great summer games for kids under 10.”

Make it easy to sign up by putting invitations in prominent locations on pages that have related content. And be sure permission is clear. If the offer is just for two to five email messages over the same number of weeks or days, then say so. You’ll likely find a higher sign-up rate and higher response and engagement because the content is so targeted. If you’re also signing them up for your ongoing e-newsletter, be clear about that. There’s no reason you can’t encourage a further subscription after you’ve delivered the series, too. Earn their trust first, then sell. Consider the following strategies:

  • Make your story interactive.
  • Tap the socially connected nature of today’s digital experience.
  • Integrate opportunities for subscribers to share with their social networks or forward to others.
  • Invite subscribers to take a poll or survey or give you feedback.
  • Offer a page where subscribers can upload their own stories or photos, and then share that user-generated content back to the group in your series.
  • Ensure your customer service team monitors these pages so that you can quickly respond to any questions or direct prospects to your sales team or e-commerce site.

Why does it work? An email series strategy is based on a fundamental truth of marketing: Provide something of value and customers will continue to engage. A series makes it easy for you to customize messages to the interests of subscribers at that moment. The topic is top of mind for them, and that creates selling and relationship opportunities for you.

Another benefit is that when your email messages are more relevant, you won’t have as many people clicking the “Report Spam” button, which registers as a complaint at internet service providers like Yahoo or Gmail. Even a small number of complaints can result in a poor sender reputation and a block on all your messages. Make even some of your messages more relevant, and the response rates for all your messages will go up and complaints will go down.

For content, consider the following four options:

1. Make it easy to learn more. Offer website visitors a two- to three-part email series rather than a whitepaper. Most downloaded content never actually gets opened or read. Once a whitepaper is downloaded and saved, it’s out of mind. An email series forces marketers to package up content in bite-sized pieces (you can always link to more detail on your website), and gives them several opportunities over a few weeks to engage. Advertising CPMs for these targeted messages can be at a premium, as well.

2. Comparison shopping. Advertisers know that readers are researching and want publishers to help them shorten sales cycles. Use a series of email messages to help subscribers compare competitive sets — the more honest/nonadvertorial you are, the longer they stay on your site! — find testimonials and bloggers, and make a strong business case.

3. Move free-trial subscribers to paid circulation. A series can give prospects confidence in your content or technology. Help them actually use your service during the trial — help them find the best reviews or product feature comparisons, or let them download tools that help them forecast productivity, revenue or cost savings as a result of making a decision to buy. Test if increasing incentives as prospects move through the cycle helps or hurts your conversion (and margin).

4. Educate. Send one great idea each week, and include ways to practice or implement. The next week, ask for input or a story about how that idea worked or didn’t work. Then, the next day, send the next idea. This interactive cadence will build value for subscribers and let them engage repeatedly over time.

Storytelling lets you retain control over the content while giving subscribers the freedom, choice and interactivity they crave. Successful email marketing is built on a very simple concept: Give subscribers what they want, and they’ll give you what you want. Subscribers want you to help them. When you do, they’ll reward you with higher response and sales, positive buzz and sharing, and stronger brand loyalty.

Let me know what you think by sharing any ideas or comments below.